Father Fessio on ‘Professor Ratzinger,’ the future Benedict XVI

Father Joseph Fessio with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during his 1999 visit to Ignatius Press / Dorothy Petersen and Eva Muntean

Denver, Colo., Jan 4, 2023 / 10:50 am (CNA).

As a young priest, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, studied theology under Joseph Ratzinger, who more than 30 years later would be elected Pope Benedict XVI. Fessio went on to found the San Francisco-based Ignatius Press in 1978, the main publisher of Ratzinger’s works in the English language. Here, he speaks with CNA about his memories of Pope Benedict XVI, who died on Dec. 31.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Father Fessio, could you please tell us how you came to study under Father Joseph Ratzinger?

I did my theology studies as a young Jesuit in a foreign nation in France, in Fourvière, the Jesuit theologate there. I got to know Father Henri de Lubac, who became my mentor. When it came time for me to do doctoral studies, I asked him for a recommendation on what theme I should take. He suggested I do my thesis on Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom he said was the greatest theologian of our time, if not of all time. This was a very striking statement for a man who was quite modest and measured in what he would say.

I later found out that he and von Balthasar were very close friends and that Balthasar was one of his students.

Then I asked him, where should I do this? He said, “Well, this young theologian in Germany is very, very good: Professor Ratzinger. I’ll write him on your behalf.” And so Henri de Lubac wrote to Joseph Ratzinger and asked if he would accept me as a doctoral student. And he did. So I went to Regensburg in 1972, and that’s where I first met him. I took his courses. Obviously, he taught lectures, but then I also was in his seminars.

I don’t actually recall the first moment I met him, but I do definitely recall the classes, the lectures: He was spellbinding. He would speak with a very soft voice but very clearly and very slowly. The insights were just flowing, left and right. The class was full, packed, mesmerized.

There would be 15 or 20 students in a seminar. One student would give a presentation and then Ratzinger would make sure that everyone contributed. He’d ask people, “What do you think about that?”

He facilitated the discussion, especially for me. My German was very poor and so I didn’t want to speak. I could barely say anything anyway. He would make sure I would make my comments.

At the end of the hour or two, he would sum up the entire seminar with maybe two or three beautiful long German sentences and put everybody’s comments into a context and actually make what you had said even more invaluable because of the context you created for it. He was just a wonderful listener. He listened and he could remember things. He could synthesize things in each of those seminars like an experience of a symphony where you hear all these different instruments come in and play separately, and then he somehow put them together at the end and make a whole.

This is why, by the way, I think he was the perfect person to be picked by John Paul II to oversee the Catechism of the Catholic Church because that again is one of the great works of the 20th century, which he had a principal hand in.

In your experience with him as a professor, was he a tough grader or a tough critic of the students?

You know, I don’t remember. I’m sure if it was easy or hard I would remember. I think it was just fair.

Could you explain for us the summer gatherings that then Cardinal Ratzinger had with his former students?

In 1978 I think he was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising. And he had about 50 or 60 students over the course of his career, which had not been that long at the time. But some of the students decided to ask him if we could continue meeting with him every year, and we formed what’s called the Schülerkreis, or the “student circle.”

Every year we would pick out a monastery and a topic that he would approve and then we’d invite one or two guest presenters, and we’d go for a weekend to a monastery. We’d have Mass together and he’d give a homily, and we’d have meals together. We’d have some seminars and recreation, a very warm, friendly community.

Let me just give you one anecdote from that. At one of these meetings, the Sunday Gospel was the parable of the 11th-hour workers. And Ratzinger gave the homily. He said in the parable, the people who worked in the heat of the sun all day were upset that the owner of the vineyard paid the last-hour workers the same as they had got.

But Ratzinger said it is we who have been blessed to be disciples all our lives. We should rejoice. We’ve been able to be with the Lord and have been working with him for the whole day and we should not be upset that those who come later also get the same reward. We should think about what we receive.

That really impressed me and every time I read that Gospel that comes to mind.

Did these summer gatherings with students change when he became pope?

We thought they would, but he said “no, no.” He didn’t want to give us up and so we continued.

Usually in the last week of August, we’d meet for a weekend and he would again meet with us. We’d have a seminar and discussion. Of course there were 50 or 60 of us graduate students, but previously only 20 or 30 would be at any one of these meetings. Once he became pope, everybody came. So it was quite an event.

Looking back during the last meeting with him before he resigned, did you see any indication that he might pursue such a bold move?

No. He resigned in February and our previous meeting was in August. But he did two long book-length interviews with the journalist Peter Seewald, both wonderful. One was called “Salt of the Earth” and one was called “God in the World.” In one of those, I forget which, Seewald asked him: “You know, Holy Father, could a pope resign?” And Benedict — Ratzinger — as always, would respond immediately, as always with very carefully constructed thoughts:

“If a pope were ever to consider that his physical or psychological or spiritual capacities were no longer adequate for the task, he not only could resign, he must resign.”

As soon as I read that, I said to myself: “If he does not die suddenly, he will resign.”

You know, people can talk about “God’s Rottweiler” and this harsh person abusing power. Benedict did not want to be bishop, he did not want to be cardinal, he did not want to be pope.

The proof of it is that he resigned. He did not cling to power over people or authority over people. He thought that he could no longer adequately do what he was called to do by the Lord, and therefore he resigned.

From your time with him, what can you tell us about his spiritual life and his devotional life?

Well, he described his prayer, his love of Scripture, his love of the psalms, his love of the Fathers of the Church, and how he went about his prayers. He was very open about his spiritual life. But he also was a man of liturgical prayer.

He was born on the vigil of Easter Sunday in 1927, April 16. In those days the vigil Mass was in the morning. He was born at 4:30 in the morning or thereabouts and then at 8:30, he was baptized at the vigil. His natural and his supernatural life began at the very heart of the Church’s liturgical life, the Sacred Triduum, and that’s marked his whole life. He’s always been a man of the liturgy.

By the way, I had a premonition that he would die in some symbolic way. Sure enough, he died on Dec. 31, which is the vigil of the Solemnity of the Mother of God.

Can you tell us more about your experience of concelebrating the liturgy with him?

He just had a presence about him at Mass. You just experienced the sacredness of the Mass because of the simplicity and the beauty of the way he celebrated. There was no showmanship. He was just immersed in the texts themselves.

For his homilies, he would give the homily without notes. He spoke and thought in full paragraphs. It was beautiful. It was always a beautiful experience to celebrate with him.

Ignatius Press is the main publisher of Pope Benedict’s works in English. What led him to entrust you with the rights to publish his works?

It was because of my studies in Europe with de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Ratzinger that when I came back to the United States in 1974, I began talking about these people and I was encouraged to make their writings available in English.

We published translations of de Lubac and Ratzinger. That was our main mission at that time. We published many of his books. In 1995, I also had a premonition he might become pope so I wrote him and I said, “Dear Cardinal Ratzinger, would you give us the rights to all your future works, the English-language rights?” and he replied, “Yes of course.” Well, he became pope.

With Pope Benedict now departed and on his way to God, how would you discuss his legacy?

Just [Monday] it was Jan. 2. It was the feast of St. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, who are prelates, doctors of the Church, fathers of the Church. Great theologians and great friends. And a third friend was Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and those great theologians were the illuminators of the dark fourth century of the Arians.

I believe that if God doesn’t close this show down in a few years and we have another couple more centuries, that they’ll look back on that the 20th century, and they’ll see this constellation of three modern fathers of the Church, doctors of the Church: de Lubac born in 1896, von Balthasar born in 1905, Ratzinger born in 1927. They all knew each other. They were friends. They corresponded. They supported each other. I believe that here are three great men of the Church who will be remembered for a long, long time.

What else would you like to say to our readers about Pope Benedict?

Go to Ignatius.com and buy his books and read them.

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